Should a responsible judge of the Highest Court in a democratic country meet the family members of a condemned criminal even as the trial continues? Can the interaction between them ultimately influence the verdict over the case? Finally should the mainstream media comment on such issues, which might create confusion among the people about the credibility of the legal system?
These and many more similar questions are lately being asked, raised and debated in Bangladesh, a secular Parliamentary democracy of South Asia, following a recent judgment from it’s Highest Court convicting two editors of an influential Bengali daily for contempt of court for a critical commentary over the ongoing war crime trials.
Swadesh Roy, the executive editor of the Dhaka-based Dainik Janakantha, recently invited the wrath from the Supreme Court of Bangladesh for one of his articles titled Saka Paribarer Tatparata! Palabar Path Kome Geche (Lobbying of Salauddin’s family! Ways to Escape Come Reducing), where he expressed dissatisfaction over the meeting of an appellate division bench judge with the family members of war criminal Salauddin Quader Chowdhury while the appeal hearing was underway.
The young journalist-editor in his article, published on 16 July 2015 in Janakantha, expressed apprehensions that the meeting could create enough space for diluting the punishment towards the war criminal, who was a part of the aggression to torture and kill freedom fighters (Muktijoddha) and rape Bengali women during the 1971 blood-soaked Bangladesh freedom struggle.
“A Dhaka based privately owned news channel Ekattor TV broadcast an audio clipping comprising a leaked conversation of two senior judges, where the Bangladesh Supreme Court chief justice Surendra Kumar Sinha admitted that he met the family members of war criminal Chowdhury and also a BNP leader Moudud Ahmed,” claimed Roy.
Speaking to this writer from Dhaka, the outspoken journalist was astonished how the war criminal’s family could manage to meet the Supreme Court chief justice. He raised pertinent questions, do judges ever meet the family members of a condemned criminal and was it within the ethical parameter of responsible judges?
We need not mention that war criminal Chowdhury was accused of being a notorious collaborator with the Pakistani forces, which unleashed a reign of terror in East Pakistan during the 1971 Muktijuddha, and which finally gave birth to Bangladesh — and Chowdhury was a notorious supporter of Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) operating in Bangladesh.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who is also the daughter of Bangladesh’s founding father Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, set up the war crimes tribunal in 2010 amid oppositions from the Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist party that was once a ruling ally to the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Two Bangladeshi Jamaat leaders (Abdul Qader Molla and Muhammad Kamaruzzaman) were already hanged following the order of the war crimes tribunal, which was endorsed by the Bangladesh SC. A few other Bangladeshi war criminals, including Salauddin Quader Chowdhury, are awaiting the gallows.
Despite resistance from the inflating Islamist elements in Bangladesh in recent time, the Supreme Court upheld the death sentence of war criminal Chowdhury on 29 July, which was originally pronounced by the special tribunal for his crimes against humanity in the 1971 Bangladesh freedom struggle.
It is understood that Roy’s article had influenced a sizable population of Bangladesh’s new generation under the umbrella of Ganajagran Mancha, which was relentlessly demanding harsh punishment for the war criminals. A number of demonstrations, rallies and public debates in precious media space with the same content were organized.
However, the appellate division bench headed by Supreme Court Chief Justice, also took strong note of Roy’s 16 July article and sent a contempt of court notice to him along with the Janakantha’s printer, publisher and editor Atikullah Khan Masud.
Even though the Highest court reportedly admitted the meeting of a senior judge with war criminal Chowdhury’s relatives, it observed that the criticism of a court verdict should be constructive. The criticism should be fair and not made with oblique motive or with the object of maligning the justice delivery system and lowering the majesty of the law and dignity of the court in the estimation of the public, added the observation.
In such cases, a working journalist in countries like Bangladesh normally makes an apology. But here, Roy continued contesting the case against the Supreme Court with his insights supported by evidence.
Finally, Roy and his editor were symbolically punished by the Bangladesh Supreme Court directing them to stay for nearly three hours in the courtroom on 13 August until the case was adjourned. They were also fined Taka 10,000 (USD 130) each to be donated to charitable organizations within a week.
Nonetheless, the case appears to be a moral boost for the vibrant media fraternity of Bangladesh, as both the Janakantha editors could sustain their point of views in the court rather than begging an apology. The representatives from civil society and advocacy groups also appreciated both of them for their commitment towards journalism enriched with commitment and patriotism.